Coolness Under Fire

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Kerry at a campaign rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania on Friday

Sometimes a politician has to put his head down and just say it ain't so. That's how it went with Senator John Kerry last week. While the rest of the political world obsessed about the dive his campaign has taken in the past month, the growing doubts inside his party about his performance on the stump and a campaign clock that seems to be ticking faster now that Labor Day has come and gone, the Democratic nominee tried to present a picture of unworried resolve when he sat down in his campaign plane for a half-hour interview with TIME last Friday afternoon.

The table in front of him clear except for a half-eaten piece of blackberry pie, the well-worn home plate from Iowa's Field of Dreams baseball diamond in the aisle next to his seat, Kerry talked about the race, his opponent, his record and his plans—but not about his doubts, if he has any. "I think we are doing extraordinarily well," he told TIME. "I think this is a close race, and it's going to be a close race. I feel very confident in where we are and confident about the direction of this race."

But with only seven weeks until the election, the vector of Kerry's campaign is, if anything, entirely uphill. A new TIME survey of 857 likely voters reveals that President Bush has retained the solid 11-point lead he earned during the New York City convention earlier this month. Kerry's support has eroded across almost every demographic group but most notably among women. In a departure from recent patterns, among registered voters, women now favor Bush over Kerry by 45% to 44%, and men are breaking for the President by a lopsided 56% to 34%.

And for Kerry, that's not the worst of it. The landscape of the race has changed, and the new ground tends to favor Republicans. Terrorism has replaced the economy as the most important issue in the race, and on those topics and nearly every other issue, voters give higher marks to Bush than to Kerry—sometimes by dramatic 20-point margins.

Bush's job-approval rating has returned to a safe cruising altitude of 56%, close to where Bill Clinton stood at this point in 1996, while Kerry's unfavorable ratings have mushroomed from 29% a month ago to 42% today. That's dangerous territory for any politician, but if Kerry is worried about those numbers, he tried hard not to show it. Asked about Bush's recent surge, Kerry said, "I don't know what you are talking about in terms of the Bush bounce."

Instead, Kerry insisted, the race is just getting under way, and voters are "beginning to listen, and listen carefully" to the debate.

"When we get into those cold days of October and people's juices begin to flow and they measure us one to one, who's going to be stronger for America, I'm confident that my record of fighting for this country since I was a young man is going to eclipse the choices that have been disastrous that have been made by George Bush," Kerry said.

In fact, many voters have been listening closely for months, and that partly explains why Kerry has slipped in the polls. Democrats and Republicans agree that the Kerry campaign focused its convention so tightly on the theme of the candidate's military service—chiefly to blunt the public's doubts about his qualifications to be Commander in Chief—that it came out of Boston without a clearly defined domestic agenda for the nation. Kerry hardly lacks a platform at home; his health-care and fiscal policies are far more detailed, if less numerous, than Bush's. But the campaign didn't pivot from the past to the future after Boston and then hammer home Kerry's ideas. That left Bush a huge opening—and he reached for it in New York City. "They made a big bet on his Vietnam service," said Mark Penn, Bill Clinton's longtime pollster. "It was a good backdrop, but it was just that. He didn't really have an agenda coupled with that service."

More damaging was Kerry's nonresponse to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who over the summer accused Kerry of misrepresenting his military record in a series of television ads. The Swifties' initial charges were reckless and unfair, but the Kerry camp's political instincts were almost worse. The campaign did ... nothing.

Incredibly, it felt the need to conduct focus groups to decide whether to respond to the veterans and, more incredibly, concluded that the public would be turned off if it did. So Kerry tried to ignore the whole thing, making two costly errors at once: he allowed a political attack to go unanswered, and he signaled to Americans that he wouldn't lift a finger to defend himself. In an election year that at bottom is about who can best defend the homeland, Kerry's refusal to strike back hard and fast when his own hide was on the line was a startling misreading of what voters are looking for in a leader after 9/11. Realizing the gravity of their error, Kerry's aides eventually leaked word that the candidate was unhappy with his campaign's handling of the Swifties. In public, though, Kerry sees no misstep. "I think we did absolutely fine," he told TIME.

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